The Ruts were an English punk rock group that formed in London in 1977, right at the very cusp of punk’s rise to international cultural importance. They were one of the most exciting up-and-coming bands at the time, with their unique blending of reggae and dub influences in their traditionally fast-paced punk sound. Moreover, through their career, the band members were active in anti-racist and anti-fascist causes and benefits in response to the rising neo-Nazi movement appearing throughout the UK. Their most popular single “Babylon’s Burning” captures the urgency of the need for a political and social uprising in Britain, adequately capturing the rage and anxiety of many dissenters of the time, while also remaining catchy as all hell. This single, along with their follow-up “Something I Said”, earned them spots on BBC’s Top of the Pops, with the latter reaching #7 on the UK charts. A more explicit example of their Jamaican influences can be found in “Jah War”, their next single covering the topic of police brutality and disturbance amidst a strict dub beat.
“Staring at the Rude Boys” is the band’s fifth single, and one of the final released before the untimely death of frontman Malcolm Owen. The single was written as a commentary on the rising 2 Tone scene of the UK and especially how it correlates with the ongoing political turmoil throughout the country. Amidst fast-paced guitars and drums, as well as Owen’s own impassioned vocals in the lead, the song builds upon a narrative that surrounds an average night at a punk show. The floor is jam packed with members from a number of punk communities (“The skins in the corner are staring at the bar / The rude boys are dancing to some heavy heavy ska… / The punks in the corner are speeding like a jet”), which are practically breeding grounds for tension and animosity.
The verse appearing immediately after the first chorus describes where these tensions come to a head: “A bunch of B.M.s march in on the D.M.s” describe how members of the British Movement – a far-right section of the skinhead community – invade the communal space of the show (“D.M.s being a reference to their Doc Martens footwear). With “tattooed crossbows on their arm”, a group of them proceed to “salute the air” in what could only be interpreted as a show of Nazi fellowship. Given that The Ruts were always very open about their intolerance for fascism in the punk community, Owen’s consistent cries of “A voice shouts loud, ‘Never surrender'” give the song its necessary punchiness in the face of explicit racism. The song ends with a description of the lights coming up as a fight breaks out between the concertgoers; the line “Everyone leaves when the heavies arrive / Someone hits the floor, someone takes a dive” once again insinuate the unsteady police system, which often further aggravates riots rather than do any real help to the matter.
“Babylon’s Burning” will probably always be my favorite Ruts release, but “Staring at the Rude Boys” doesn’t fall too far behind. It’s high in energy, endlessly impassioned, and an excellent example of the thriving nature of this era in the early years of punk rock. Any band that spends the majority of their career fighting back against fascist forces is a-okay with me. This is especially welcome right now, not only due to its ongoing relevancy in today’s political and social climate, but also because I had just finished writing about Big Black yesterday, who didn’t really do much for the topics of their music besides making them sound edgy and dark. So yeah – The Ruts rule.